Last weekend’s tsunami washes over Sendai
I will try to make this brief. Today, five things:
1. This is hell. I don’t watch TV news. And I have been busy. So I had not, until this afternoon, watched any of the footage of Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-meltdown crisis. It is heartbreaking. The above video came from this page, which features a dozen or so other clips of the disaster.
2. A new blog for my blogroll; down with lame theology. I ran across Debra Dean Murphy’s blog for the first time today. I would like to share a slice of her latest post, which says exactly what I was thinking as I watched the footage, only she says it better than I was thinking it.
The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity — the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence).
This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways — a loved one stricken with cancer, say — but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that as a collective — a nation-state, say — we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).
Life is lived, and has always been lived, on a cliff’s edge. We just don’t look down until we are forced to. When we do we say, O, God, how scary is the world, but then forget it when the next distraction comes along, particularly if it promises to put us in the driver’s seat. But the abyss remains nonetheless, just beyond the veil of illusion.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, and melted-down reactors, and the death, disease, and emotional and spiritual turmoil they produce don’t change the world we live in; they just remind us of the kind of world we have always lived in, and will always live in.
3. Leibniz the rainbow-chaser. I sat down tonight and read Leibniz on faith and reason. Reading these Enlightenment guys is, for me, very often an exercise in comedy. And in the face of the Japanese disasters, this comedy reaches a nearly frantic pitch. Because Leibniz et al. are all so unbelievably optimistic about the human capacity to know and understand (and therefore to control).* This optimism is still found among many people, and in a way it’s understandable; when you keep everything simple and on the surface, all you have to compare us to are dolphins, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants. So in that game we come out looking pretty good.
But, as I never tire of saying, there are dimensions of knowledge that have nothing to do with discourse, language, argumentation, or strict adherence to the laws of logic. You don’t have to have a spectacular mystical experience or consider religion at all: literary or artistic ways of knowing will do just fine (this is not to say that there is no reason or logic in these areas; it is to say that what they show us defies the categories of reason). IMO, when it comes to this kind of knowledge — knowledge of ourselves — we’re lost.
What this world needs are deep people, not smart people.
4. I won’t go there. As I watched the video above, I realized I have absolutely no interest in trying to figure out “where God is in this.” I will not offer up to any skeptics or atheists who read this blog, some lame attempt to reconcile this week’s events with a omnipotent, omnipresent, omniwhatever God. I mean, why? Why defend God? Why should I go to the trouble, when I myself am sitting here accusing him of mass murder? I’m not one of the Enlightenment guys who think, like Leibniz, that “When an objection is put forward against some truth, it is always possible to answer it satisfactorily.” I have no answer, satisfactory or otherwise.
Lent reminds us that we’re all in the same boat — the sinking ship of our failed attempts to save ourselves, love ourselves, and save those we love. The ashes are not mere symbol; they are not a public sign of our piety (exactly what Jesus warns against in Ash Wednesday’s gospel reading). Instead, the ashes are as real as it gets — a sticky, gritty, grimy smear plastered to our foreheads, precisely on the same spot that the oil of baptism was applied. For Christians, the juxtaposition is as liberating as it is instructive: we are dying, yet we live. Death may be at our doorstep but it cannot steal our substance. We are alive in Christ, alive in one another, and alive in the hope that death do[es] not have the last word.
*I have now read more of Leibniz and I should qualify these statements. But I won’t, other than to say I should.